In the recent imbroglio surrounding the Supreme Court order on eviction of forest rights claimants whose claims have been rejected, good sense finally prevailed and the Apex Court stayed its own order on the basis that there needs to be better investigation into whether due process under Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act popularly known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA) has been followed or not. While these aspects are being investigated upon by the states, it would be important to ascertain whether the legislation is detrimental to larger question of conservation or not.
It is a fact that this legislation has been greatly reviled amongst forest departments and hard-core conservationists all across the country. A case has been made against it as a law meant to primarily provide land titles to the landless and disinvested communities. Indeed, the purpose of this legislation as its Preamble states is to right the historical injustice caused to forest dependent communities during the colonial and post-independence period by granting them rights over forest lands where they have traditionally resided. However, that is not all. It also recognizes rights of forest dependent communities towards conservation of forest biodiversity and maintenance of ecological balance while ensuring their livelihood and food security. Accordingly, the right to protect, regenerate, conserve or manage any community forest resource (CFR) is recognized within the Act as a right which a community can claim for itself. The holder of any forest right (both individual and community), Gram Sabha and village level institutions have been empowered under this legislation to protect wildlife, forest and biodiversity; ensure that adjoining catchment areas, water sources and other ecologically sensitive areas are protected; ensure that their habitats are preserved from destructive practices affecting their cultural and natural heritage; and ensure that their decisions pertaining to stopping any such destructive activities are complied with.
It is the duty of the Gram Sabha to constitute Committees for this purpose which will come up with conservation and management plan which must be integrated with micro plans or working plans or management plans of the forest department with such modifications as may be considered necessary by the committee. What is interesting to note is that this Act allows for granting of CFR rights within reserved forests, protected forests, village forests and protected areas such as National Parks and Sanctuaries. It should be seen as an opportunity for a larger conservation reach by communities on these lands as well, provided there is adequate hand holding both during the claims recognition process as well as in the aftermath of recognizing claims.
In fact, there were further clarifications to the law in 2012 as to the process to be followed by the right claimants once they have received these rights. It was mandated under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Amendment Rules, 2012 that 'the State Government shall ensure through its departments especially tribal and social welfare, environment and forest, revenue, rural development, panchayati raj and other departments relevant to upliftment of forest dwelling scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers, that all government schemes including those relating to land improvement, land productivity, basic amenities and other livelihood measures are provided to such claimants and communities whose rights have been recognized and vested under the Act.' Such a post claim strategy will certainly help the communities do a better and more informed job at conservation and management of CFR areas.
As forest rights groups and grassroots organizations can vouch for, there are successful examples of conservation and regeneration efforts reported from states of Maharashtra, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Karnataka. The Forest Survey of India report of 2017 also reveals that there is a recorded increase of forest cover in tribal areas. Whether this increase is a direct result of rights recognition is a matter to be looked into. But it is evident from this author's own field interactions that communities have renewed interest in conservation once they are granted CFR titles especially in really degraded areas.The soil, water and biodiversity of such areas have significantly improved. There is a definite improvement in socio-economic and livelihood status of such communities and migration from such areas has reduced to a great extent. Such instances when juxtaposed with reports of illegal clearances granted towards diversion of biodiversity rich forest areas for mining and other similar destructive projects and unscientific afforestation projects taken up by the forest department officials, makes one think hard. This Act if implemented in its true spirit can also be recourse to conflicts occurring in states affected by Left Wing Extremism which are predominantly tribal in nature.
A proper reading of the provisions reveals that there is no ambiguity in the law as regards the impetus on conservation. There are several examples from the country which reveal the true potential of FRA as regards forest conservation. It is the Gram Sabha's power under FRA that came to the recourse of tribals in Niyamgiri to prevent permission to Vedanta for bauxite mining in the hills that they revered. FRA was further invoked by National Green Tribunal when people of Lippa village in Himachal Pradesh were given power to decide whether they wanted a hydel project in their area which would have led to submergence of forest land and heavy siltation. There have also been several protests against the forest department's tick box approach to afforestation and now department officials in CFR areas do not carry out tree planting or felling without the consent of Gram Sabhas. The MahaGramsabha in Korchi in Maharashtra's Gadchiroli district created for 87 villages, has been instrumental in opposing mining projects in its forest areas successfully, ever since they have been granted CFR rights. It is thus a step backward when for the first time, CFR rights granted to Ghatbarra village in Chhattisgarh was withdrawn to facilitate mining in two coal blocks.
What stands in the way of implementing this Act in a proper manner?
Apart from a misunderstanding of the provisions; incorrect constitution of agencies and irregular meeting of these agencies;restrictive practices being followed under already existing forest-centric laws; lack of good quality evidence to support claims; awareness problems amongst the communities on the Act provisions; inadequate monitoring system at the national and state level; and post recognition issues, odds are generally stacked against the tribals and forest dependent communities of this country. It should be noted that FRA is not the only legislation which provides the right of conservation to communities. Even the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, Biological Diversity Act, 2002 and Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, provides a clear role to forest dependent communities to conserve. However, as can be seen in the case of the FRA, even these laws suffer from the challenge of being implemented in their true spirits.
The fault does not lie with the laws but the intent and capabilities of the state governments and governing agencies. While it is true that forest and wildlife conservation requires inviolate spaces, the real threats to such conservation are mining companies willing to open thick forests for mineral exploration or high speed expressways and railway tracks cutting across important wildlife corridors. Ignoring these threats and laying the fault at the doorstep of a law which seeks to right injustice caused to the forest dwelling communities cannot and should not be the government's modus operandi.
(Shyama Kuriakose is an environmental lawyer who has been working on these issues for last 8 years.)